WALKING INTO THE Springfield Cardinals' ballpark, I could've sworn I had stepped out of a time machine. The prices were positively quaint: $20 bought a hot dog, a beer and a front row seat. It was a warm night, and a pack of children stalked a hapless mascot in the stands. Others were sprawled out on picnic blankets behind left field, next to a bounce house that quivered like a block of gelatin. This was an obsolescent America, a place where families could gather for cheap, wholesome thrills. It was magical.
And yet, as I watched the Double-A game from my $9 seat, I felt the same anxiety I've experienced at McDonald's and Walmart, places where cheap thrills come at the cost of even cheaper labor. I had known that minor league players weren't paid much, but I was still surprised when the man sitting to my right, a former infielder named Matt Lawson, told me he lived in poverty as a ballplayer.
Before retiring last year, Lawson, 28, spent seven seasons playing in the farm systems of the Rangers, Mariners and Indians -- seven seasons scraping by on low wages, scrounging for cheap food, sleeping on an air mattress in a tiny apartment split among six guys. He made $3,000 his first year and peaked at $11,000. After he married his wife in 2008 (they met as eighth-graders in Carl Junction, Mo., pop. 6,500), the couple spent their first year together living with a host family. "I remember there being months where I'd look at her and be like, 'This is gonna be a hard month,'" he says. "'Just hang in there this month.'"
MLB made an estimated $8 billion in gross revenue last year, but many of its employees -- the thousands of minor leaguers scattered across the country like seedlings awaiting harvest -- make less than fast-food workers. This is hardly a secret. But few people ever talk about it, especially not the prospects who are afraid of jeopardizing their futures in the game.
That's finally beginning to change. Earlier this year, a group of former players, including Lawson, sued MLB, accusing the teams of paying workers less than minimum wage. While big leaguers made an average of $3.4 million last year, most minor leaguers earn between $3,000 and $7,500 a season, according to the lawsuit. Adjusting for inflation, the plaintiffs allege, their wages have declined since the 1970s. The lawsuit asks for back pay, damages and an injunction that would change baseball's pay practices.
The fortunate few who do advance to the majors -- less than one in five, according to Baseball America -- get to cash in. So do the prospects who reap big signing bonuses. "I feel like minor league players get taken advantage of," Lawson says. A spokesman for MLB declined to comment on the lawsuit.
Not everyone sympathizes with the plight of baseball's underclass. For some, it's impossible to pity professional athletes; they're doing what they love, so why should they get paid? Others argue that an increase in minor league wages would drive up the cost of minor league games, robbing fans of one of the few affordable joys left in sports.
Turns out that's wrong. "Ticket prices are based on demand, and demand is based on the quality of the product, not the cost of providing the product," says Dan Rascher, a sports economist at the University of San Francisco. In other words, minor league games are cheap because fans think they should be cheap, not because the athletes earn so little.
In fact, minor league teams don't even pay their players, who work for big league clubs. MLB teams don't disclose how much they spend on their farm systems, but Rascher estimates it's a small fraction of their total payroll. For a club with 200 minor leaguers, throwing every player an additional $5,000 -- in some cases, doubling their pay -- would cost about $1 million, or 1/20th of Justin Verlander's 2014 salary.
If teams were forced to raise minor league wages, they might punish prospects by cutting signing bonuses. But it also seems likely that a pay hike would generate positive outcomes: happier athletes, longer careers, better competition. Games would still be affordable, and there would still be bounce houses and children in the stands. But there would also be men on the field rightfully making a living wage, because a labor of love is still just that -- labor.